Walking into 86-year-old rock climber Robert Kelman’s suburban home in Loveland, Colorado, the first thing he shows GrindTV is his gym. “Four hundred twenty-five square feet,” he says, smiling.
He says he likes to lift weights for a couple of hours a day, two to three times a week, while playing grand opera music.
Perhaps those workouts are why he looks 20 years younger than we expected. He’s ripped, and his defined biceps are visible under his white Adidas workout shirt.
On Nov. 4, Roddy McCalley, a guide at Cliffhanger Guides, posted a series of photos on his Facebook page of Kelman climbing in Joshua Tree National Park. In the photos, Kelman is dressed in baggy jeans and a colorful rugby shirt.
In one shot, Kelman is on the summit of Intersection Rock, a 160-foot-tall formation with a flat summit. A strip of pavement extends in the distance far below. Kelman’s wearing a broad grin.
Joshua Tree, in Southern California, has roughly 9,000 rock-climbing routes played out on “rounded, decomposing quartz monzonite domes scattered around the desert,” McCalley says. The park receives 2.4 million annual visitors.
Underneath Kelman’s baggy clothing were elbow- and kneepads. And he wrapped the backs of his hands and sections of his fingers with athletic tape to protect against the park’s rough rock.
“The problem with getting old is that your skin tears easier,” Kelman says.
At age 81, Kelman began noticing an abrupt lack of strength, so he ramped up his training. Today this includes doing chin-ups with an old climbing pack filled with 51 pounds of buckshot.
He says his wife lifts too.
Strength-wise, he feels fit as ever (though he knows that’s not quite true). However, his proprioception had been declining with advancing age, and he’s slower at hiking.
“I’m an obligatory exerciser,” he says. “If I don’t exercise for a day or two, I feel bad. I call my workout Slow Fit instead of Cross Fit.
“An old boxer doesn’t lose his punch.”
Kelman boxed in college and has lifted free weights since high school, which was about 70 years ago. When he was a graduate student in mathematics at UC Berkeley, a friend tried taking him climbing, but he declined, saying it was “stupid.”
Later, in 1971, while he was simultaneously a computer science professor at Colorado State University and a clinical professor of preventative medicine at the University of Colorado Medical School, he signed himself and his son Karl, 12, up for a day of guided climbing.
Karl didn’t stick with it, but Kelman was hooked.
“I was working very hard at that time. One day a week was all I had for climbing when working and raising a family,” Kelman says. Among other things, work included “a year at the White House as a consultant in the executive office of the president. This was 1959. They needed a bunch of young PhDs to do the work.”
He also worked in the computer industry from 1958 to 1963 and went on to work as a professor from 1966 to 1991. Today Kelman has four sons — Karl is now 57 — three grandsons and three granddaughters.
Putting family first meant that Kelman didn’t have more than one free day a week to climb until his 60s, when he retired. Then he began climbing “at least two to three days a week.”
In 1994 Kelman published his first book, “Heel and Toe: The Climbs of Greater Vedauwoo, Wyoming,” with co-author Skip Harper. He published his second book in 2004, called “Rock Climbing at Vedauwoo, Wyoming: Climbs of the Eastern Medicine Bow National Forest.”
Vedauwoo is perhaps the most famous wide-crack-climbing area in the country. Climbing wide cracks, also called off-widths (or “awful-widths”), requires squirming your body like an inchworm up a crack that is wider than your hands but not as wide as your body. Off-width climbers often resemble wrestlers because ascending wide cracks is full-body physical.
“They were intense days,” Kelman says regarding his recent experience in Joshua Tree.
McCally says the two days he spent with Kelman were memorable on many counts and that the two have since stayed in contact. “He can seem tentative when walking on a trail, but once on a rope he’s a lot more confident,” McCally says.
“His technique is textbook. We climbed 13 pitches over two days [including] the 500-foot-tall route called Right On. Many out-of-towners can’t get that much climbing in in a week.
“At the end, it felt like I had a climbing partner and [that I] was not just a guide. He’s a super smart guy and really fun to climb with.”
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